Spain's Civil War

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains – the Spanish Civil War

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The Spanish Civil War is a taboo subject in Spain, but historian Zach Frohlich delves into the dark past of 'Two Spains' and how the Civil War is treated in modern-day Spain.

"Here lies half of Spain. It died of the other half."
—  Mariano José de Larra, 19th-century Spanish satirist

When I first visited my wife in Valencia I stayed with her at her parent's house. One day I was passing through the hallway where, like many families all around the world, they had hanging photos of both parents' families, pictures more or less organised with my father-in-law's family on one side and my mother-in-law's on the other. As I looked at the old photos with curiosity, I was suddenly struck by a curious discrepancy: the portrait picture taken of my wife's father's father when he was a young man showed him in one kind of uniform, while the photo of her other grandfather showed him in a different uniform. Given their age, I knew her grandfathers (whom she referred to in Valencian as 'los iaios') would have only fought in one war, the Spanish Civil War. And apparently, I realised, they fought on opposite sides: one grandfather, from the city, in the Republican uniform, the other grandpa, from the pueblo, in a Nationalist (pro-Franco) uniform.

That impression of the two grandfathers on the family photo wall has stuck with me, a symbol of the personal divisions caused by the war, neighbour killing neighbour, regions (like Valencia) divided by city and countryside. But also of how people had moved on. While it took little effort for me – even the clumsy, Spanish-challenged outsider that I was – to realise that my wife's two families have very different politics, the civil war never came up in family visits or meals with them, nor did any bitterness or resentfulness, at least of a personal nature, about their opposite positions during the war.

And yet there they sat, the two photos, side-by-side on the same wall of portraits, both at the top of their respective family trees, which joined together with my wife (or with her parent's marriage). What to make of it?
Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
Easily the most iconic depiction of the Spanish Civil War is Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), which depicts the Spanish Nationalist forces bombing the Basque town on April 26, 1937.

Next year (20 November, 2015) will mark the 40th anniversary of Franco's death, which was a very important symbolic marker point in Spain's democratic transition, and an excuse to continue my series on 'Las Dos Españas'. Of all the arguments for it, the Spanish Civil War seems to be the ultimate proof of there actually having existed Two Spains. The war literally tore the country in two, and factions seemed to line up ready to die for their half of Spain.

I'm sure all of you, having taken an interest to Spain, have heard something about the war, but it's worth recapping its main events for those of you who found history class dull. Fixing a 'start' to the Civil War is one of many narrative points continuously under dispute, further underscoring a classic dilemma historians regularly run into when telling a story; Aristotle once nicely summarised the principal structures of a story by saying that any narrative must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Given this basic arch, any account of a polemical past event usually embeds its argument in what the storyteller chooses to be the beginning, middle, and end of what took place as they tell it.
Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
An example of the many political and ideological recruitment posters of the war, this one featuring the Republican slogan ('lema'): '¡No pasarán! ¡Pasaremos!'

A prelude to the Spanish Civil War

Some start with the chaos of the Spanish Second Republic (suggesting the military coop was an inevitable maneuver to reestablish political order), others take it back to the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the failure of Spanish Imperialism (arguing that the military and old order was still in denial about the democratic consequences of modernisation). Or maybe it started in 1492… Rather than invoke these deeper origin stories, I'll just schematicise the war here so as to do my due diligence that you have some sense of when it happened and what was the outcome.

On July 17, 1936, a faction of rebel military troops led by Franco and two other generals declared a coup d'état and moved from their different satellite positions to seize power from the Republican government in Madrid. Over the next few months both sides consolidated control over certain regions of the country, effectively dividing the country in half, with the city of Madrid itself at the border and under siege. Early in the conflict Republican Spain had to move its headquarters to the city of Valencia. For the next two years the front lines moved little, with the exception of the Basque region falling to Franco. Then, from May 1938 through April 1939, Franco's armies progressively began to defeat the Republican Spain, first winning the Battle of Ebro in the fall of 1938, splitting the Republican territory, and then besieging both cities separately. On April 1, 1939 Franco declared victory when the last Republican troops surrendered.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
The Siege of Madrid a major site of the Civil War conflict, and inspiration for Hemingway's play The Fifth Column.
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
When I asked my wife, what image does she think of when she thinks of the Civil War, she told me, "Battles and trenches in fields." And it's true that these kinds of photographs, representing a new kind of battle field journalism, are typical representations of the war.
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
Though as the war progressed and intensified, more and more images of urban fights and destruction, like this one which I believe is from the siege of Teruel, would also appear.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, leader of the rebelian forces and future dictator.

In the time between July 1936 and April 1939 both sides committed horrible atrocities, executing prisoners, and even civilians. One area of much dispute and symbolic argument today is whether the total death tolls on both sides were comparable, or whether the winners (Franco and the Nationalists) were more brutal. (Whatever one's feelings on this question, a second question where it is harder to argue there is doubt or confusion, is whether Franco's postwar repression was brutal, inhumane, and arguably criminal.)

In this entry I'm not really interested in detailing the Civil War. (You can find plenty on that at other sites like this one.) Rather, what I want to turn to is how it is remembered (and deployed) today. With Franco's victory, and the postwar internal repression of any opposition (think Laberinto del Fauno (2006)), the lived-history of the civil war quickly became a taboo subject, either discussed behind doors in secret or white-washed by a Franco regime eager to turn the page and industrialise Spain on its own terms. In this vacuum of Spanish commentary on the Civil War (other than the clearly biased Franco regime doctrinal accounts), foreigners came to define the war, its political significance and symbolic meaning.

The Spanish Civil War defined through an expat lense

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil WarThe first and most prominent group to do so were former members of the International Brigade. Here is where we can situate Hemingway's Civil War as retold in The Fifth Column (1938) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). To quote Spanish historian Paco Pereda on Hemingway's place in these debates:

"Hemingway is an ambiguous character in Spanish history because he was more or less well liked by both the Republicans and the Fascists. It was his political beliefs that did it for the Republicans and the fact that he liked bullfighting, drinking, hunting, and powerful emotions (pleased) for the Fascists".

Indeed, at the start of the war, Hemingway spent some of his energies trying to lobby the Republican side to protect bullfighting even though it was heavily implicated with the pro-Franco rebels. After the war, according to Laprade, Censura y Recepción de Hemingway en España (1991), Spanish censors struggled from 1953 into the 1970s with striking a balance between celebrating certain Hemingway prose (basking in the glow of international recognition he gave bullfighting) while censoring other things Hemingway wrote (that awkward little story he published about bells tolling, or his affiliation with communist Cuba). The popularity of the film For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), however, proved too much to ban outright, and so apparently it was also screened, though with more politically delicate segments edited out.

Hemingway was not alone. There were many other expat and outsiders' recollections and opinions on the Spanish Civil War. Many of them, though attempting to show support for Republicans, perpetuate certain common stereotypes that I've put under the title of the 'Hemingway paradigm'… the alleged ineptitude of well-meaning leftist Spaniards (accounts exaggerate the incompetence of Socialists, the inane political divisions among left-wing parties, depiction of anarchists as politically naive), and their hot-bloodedness and intensity. One of the best written of these expat accounts is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938), which improves on some of these stereotypes (eg. an interesting account of anarchists proving to be quite adept community managers and organisers), while still remaining trapped in a very English style of Romanticism and nostalgia for a simpler Spain.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil WarWhile I have not yet read it, I'm certain, given the quality of  Paul Preston's historical work, that his book We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War (2008) would give you a very good sense of this community's take on the war, and situate their work in a particular post-Civil War campaign. The list of figures he discusses—Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, Martha Gellhorn (a.k.a. Hemingway's third wife), W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Kim PhilbyGeorge Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Cyril Connolly, André Malraux,, Antoine de Saint Exupéry—gives you an idea of the quality, colour, and character of this impressive and vocal group of expat witnesses.

For most of these accounts, written in the 1940s at the beginning of what was suddenly a global war, World War II, the Spanish Civil War was quickly redefined as a precursor to the WWII struggle of fascists versus socialists (with usually no compunction shown in such accounts about the blatant presumptions of internationalism that ignored any Spanish singularities). This is still often the Spanish Civil War's place in European or World Histories – preface to WWII – as it is taught in the UK or USA. (Thus, expats like Hemingway and Orwell are quite dogged about their efforts to depict German airplanes or Italian resources involved in the Civil War, or to address the questions about Soviet Russia's relationship to the Republican Socialist government… all proxy questions about the 'cold war' in the mid-1930s which they believed foreshadowed the outbreak of WWII.)
Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War
Notice the caption for this map, 'the little World War', with all of its embedded internationalist presumptions about the conflict.

But the Expat International Brigaders weren't the only ones at liberty to write. In a later entry I'll discuss the Spanish exodus which resulted from Spaniards who fled Spain at the end of the war for France, Russia, Mexico, and other countries around the world. Many of these Spanish exiles ('exiliados españoles') would spend the rest of their lives trying to restore Spain's image, denounce Franco's dictatorship, or continue their particular political projects on behalf of an international communism, socialism, or such. (Some would return in the 1970s at the end of the dictatorship.)

In the process, many wrote their own recollections and memoirs, few of which achieve the same renown as Orwell's or Hemingway's. But they gave a powerful personal account to the cultural dislocation caused by the war. And one that was not so peculiarly Anglo-Saxon. (A huge thanks to my undergraduate UT Austin history professor for encouraging me and other students to examine the University's very large collection of such memoirs and war-related materials.)

Two Spains

In all these recollections there are many visions of Spain and of what happened during the Civil War. Here again, one can see the neatness of the 'Two Spains' thesis begin to unravel. On the Left: Andalusian anarchists, Catalan communists, and Basque unionists, all loosely managed by a Socialist-party government expelled to Valencia. (The Republican government, it should be remembered, also repressed anarchist uprisings, and outlawed the Marxist POUM group.) On the Right: Monarchists, Fascist idealists ('Falange'), and Catholics, all eventually riding along with the might of Franco's military. (Franco, however, who was wary of the ideological wing of the Falange, would expel the King, and only halfheartedly catered to Catholic concerns… though perhaps, after the army, this last group was the one that most clearly profited from his dictatorship.)

And in the middle, I can only imagine, were those people who had no particular -ism or -ist, but simply had the misfortune of being born in a country pulled apart at the seams by divisive, radical, and eventually violent sentiments. Every one of these groups would project their own worldview, personal experience, and vision of Spain onto their account of the Civil War.

Forgetting the Spanish Civil War

Yet, many of these Spanish stories aren't told, or aren't published. One of the peculiar features of the democratic transition in the 1970s was the collective decision (or at least the decision made by the architects of the Spanish Constitutions) to simply move forward, and to not officially, publicly scrutinise the atrocities of the Franco Regime. In some sense, during the 1980s, most Spaniards were satisfied with this great forgetting simply because of all the work and opportunity the country faced with joining Europe and embracing its new democracy. (But you can contrast this transition with other countries that have dealt with systematic repression followed by social repair, such as South Africa's approach to ending Apartheid through its 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission', widely considered to be a model of humanitarian justice and peaceful transition. Or an analogy closer to home, and much more politically disputed, might be the debate in the United States over awarding 'reparations' for slavery or more recently the use of 'affirmative action' to offset the history of segregation.).Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil WarA colleague of mine, Oliver Hochadel, brought this creative critique cartoon to my attention. It plays on the excessive interest and attention given to the archeological dig at Atapuerca, as compared to the continued delay and deliberate diss-attention paid to uncovering the graves of the victims of Franco's repression.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Two Spains, many Spains - the Spanish Civil War

García Lorca (1898-1936), easily one of the most famous and
tragic victims of the Franco repression during the Civil War

This 'decision' to forget the war and postwar dictatorship was always only partial, as disputes continue today over what officials, the government, and individuals owe the victims and exiles from the Franco period. It surfaces in disputes about unburying the mass graves of victims of Franco's repressive purges during and after the end of the war, including Federico García Lorca's unmarked grave.

It surfaced with the passage of the 'Ley de Memoria Histórica' in 2007, providing institutional mechanism by which victims can seek 'reclamaciones', removing Francoist symbols such as statues throughout the country, and granting 'right to return' to all exiles and Spanish nationality to any descendants who seek it. And it resurfaces in professional debates among those who actually write history, historians. (There was once a flare up of outrage over definitions in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE), which in the initial version gave 'franquismo' (Francoist movement) an innocuous description as a 'political movement with totalitarian tendencies'.)

Modern-day Spain's perspective on the Civil War

Today there is a new historicism emerging within Spain, an interest in exploring the history of Spanish exiles, the Civil War, and the postwar regime, and their many legacies today in Spain. And this local movement is offering 'surprising discoveries': that Spain was not backward in the 1910s and 1920s, but had Nobel Laureates, important scientific research centers, thriving cultural movements.

Critiques of 'Spanish exceptionalism' but also attempting to add a Spanish perspective to a long line of predominantly English historians writing on this subject include: Gerald Brenan (The Spanish Labyrinth, 1943), Raymond Carr (The Spanish Tragedy, 1977), or Paul Preston (The Spanish Civil War, 2006), to name a few prominent ones. These accounts characterise the Civil War as a (startling) rupture in the history of a country that was advancing and modernising like any other European country, and do not accept the vision of Spain as a country doomed by disposition to violent implosions as Hemingway or others might have led us to believe. Does this mean Spain can move on now?

Until recently, it was hard to find a cultural account of Spain, especially if it is written by an expat, that did not weigh in, in some way or another, on the Spanish Civil War and editorialise about what it meant for the country. In some respects this makes sense. The War is still recent history, still has major ramifications for Spain's social, economic, and political realities, and there are still people alive who were directly affected by the war and by the repression following it.

This said, I encourage my readers to consider two pieces of advice when you encounter any mention of the Civil War, in books or when talking with people. First, be wary of any neat account of the war which depicts the conflict as inevitable or demonises one side or the other. Even my fairly limited forays into its history have shown me that it was a real mess, and that one must tread lightly about offering strong theses about its significance and legacies.

Second, it is important to remember that there is a new generation of Spaniards that were born after the dictatorship, and for whom the bell never tolled. They do have photos of their grandfathers up on the wall of family portraits, but they are also ardently (and digitally) photographing new images of Spain and (increasingly) of their adventures abroad. Many self-identify as much or more as Europeans than with either of the 'Two Spains' (the so-called 'Erasmus generation'). For them, the Civil War is a tragic moment in their collective past, but their eyes are directed towards the future.

 with permission of Not Hemingway's Spain.

Zach FrohlichOriginally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich has been traveling between Spain and the U.S. for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last few years. He is a historian by training and is married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights on Spain at Not Hemingway's Spain

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3 Comments To This Article

  • gaicedo posted:

    on 23rd July 2014, 01:17:17 - Reply

    Of course, Hemingway was wrong. He only cheers one side of war murders for convenience.
    History versus propaganda
  • antoni posted:

    on 23rd July 2014, 01:11:18 - Reply

    Yes, there is two Spain in history and a lot oh lies came from several ideological sides, Communists, Anarchists, Franco followers and democrats. Anyway, the truth is inside history: all were murders and totalitarian, and some wanted to follow red soviet from Stalin's Russia. Wrong! Later history showed the truth: dead came from all flags, like today. That is the human history, about this ask Balzac.
  • Trish posted:

    on 25th June 2014, 13:32:41 - Reply

    I enjoyed your article and think it's a good idea to write on the subject of the Civil War for expats. After all, we have chosen to live in this country and newcomers are frequently confused by seemingly inexplicable aspects of Spanish culture, which without a background knowledge of the Civil War are difficult to understand. I have written on corruption in Spain and the continuity of Francoism to the present day. It is not an academic text but easily understandable. I hope it will also throw light on these issues. Dr Trish Watson, author Eternal Spain: crisis and corruption. Kindle ebook.